Personality

The Confusion and Contradiction of MBTI

Recent and robust research shows that personality "types" don't exist.

Posted Jun 08, 2020

In a recent Forbes article, the writer (who also happens to be a senior employee of The Myers-Briggs Company) said: 

"Yes, people's personalities do change, but personality type doesn't. This may sound like a contradiction..."

They then went on to explain, without using any scientific backing, why as a person, it is natural and normal to change over time. In fact, it is "essential" that you expand and grow so as not to plateau in your development, they explain. However, your "core" tendencies (or personality "type") will never change.

According to the Myers-Briggs doctrine, "personality" is less fundamental than personality "type." Unfortunately, this idea, although well-meaning, simply doesn't have backing for at least two reasons.

  1. There is no evidence for personality "types."
  2. There is evidence that personality can change considerably over the span of a person's lifetime.

There Is No Evidence for Personality "Types"

Dr. Michael Wilmot, an I-O Psychologist who studies the theoretical structure of personality assessments, stated, "The thing about personality types is that they're very interesting to talk about and they have been an object of public fascination for ages. But with modern, more robust research methods, most of these older typological claims are turning out to be spurious."

Personality doesn't work in types. The most researched theory of personality, the Big Five, breaks personality into five factors. When you take a Big Five personality test, you will be asked questions which use a Likert-scale (usually a 5-point one), meaning you score each question with a 1-5, with 1 being "Disagree," 3 being "Neutral," and 5 being "Agree." The reason this is important is that with most type-based personality tests you aren't given the option to provide nuance to your answer. Instead, you're required to answer often between four choices, none of which truly fit. 

Once you complete a Big Five personality test, you'll be given five scores, showing your percentile rank among the general population on the five factors (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism (sometimes named by its polar opposite, Emotional Stability), and Openness to Experience (sometimes named Intellect). With the Big Five, as with most science-based psychological measures, you're going to see a "normal distribution," meaning there is a bell curve. Most of the population is going to be somewhere in the middle, with a few "outliers" on both sides. Carl Jung, on whose work the Myers-Briggs test purports to base itself, said, "There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum." 

Most people are going to be somewhere in the middle of, say, extraversion, meaning that most people would identify as both introverted and extraverted (this is completely normal). One problem with the whole notion of "types" is that they make people think their personality is more extreme and black-and-white than it really is. Hence, a real danger of these kinds of tests is that they can give a person an extreme sense of identity, wherein the label or "type" becomes how they identify.

Dr. Ellen Langer, a notable Harvard psychologist, has discussed at length how labeling can lead to mindlessness, wherein you think the label is truer and more consistent than it really is. As she stated: "If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration. . . . When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time. Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case."

There Is Growing Evidence that Personality Changes Over Time

In the 2018 book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Dr. Merve Emre explains that personality testing has become a $2 billion industry, with the Myers-Briggs test being the most popular of them all. Interestingly, neither Katharine Briggs nor her daughter, Isabel Myers, had any training in psychology, psychiatry, or testing. Neither ever worked in a laboratory or academic institution. Since access to universities for women was limited, the two developed their system from home, instead of in a lab or at a university.

According to Briggs, a person can put themselves through a lot of psychological pain by trying to solve incompatibilities. Instead of trying to change oneself, Briggs proposed that the differences in how people respond to life are innate and unchangeable. They are hardwired dispositions to be recognized and accommodated. Rather than improving yourself, you just "accept" yourself, and everyone else should as well. Briggs had a "fixed mindset" about people, and you can still see this doctrine in The Myers-Briggs Company. 

Interestingly, more recent research shows that 90 percent of people want to make changes in their personalities. As people, we want to improve ourselves. But non-scientific theories like Briggs' can lead people to believe they literally can't change, because their "core" attributes or "type" is inflexible. Hence, type-based tests that create a label can also create a fixed mindset. 

More recent research (including longitudinal data) shows that a person's personality is going to change over their lifetime. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that personality can be intentionally changed, even using a two-week intervention. 

Conclusion

Later in the Forbes article, the writer stated:

"It is clear that personality isn't permanent... Personality "type," as understood by the Myers-Briggs framework and by Carl Jung's theory, is a different story. It is not the total embodiment of personality but rather a set of natural predispositions that, in fact, do not change, even in the face of significant change with regard to our skills, abilities, desires and interests over the course of our lives."

A growing body of research indeed agrees with this writer that Personality Isn't Permanent. The question is, should we be basing our understanding of personality on the "Myers-Briggs framework and Carl Jung's theory"? Based on the seeming contradictions and lack of evidence, I say no.

References

Emre, M. (2018). The personality brokers: The strange history of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing. Random House Canada.

Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychology and aging, 31(8), 862.

Haynie, S. (2020). Personality Isn't Permanent, Or Is It? The Answer Can Shape Your Career. Forbes.

Helson, R., & Soto, C. J. (2005). Up and down in middle age: monotonic and nonmonotonic changes in roles, status, and personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(2), 194.

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109(3), 490.

Langer, E. J. (2014). Mindfulness. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Quoidbach, J., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2013). The end of history illusion. science, 339(6115), 96-98.

Stieger, M., Wepfer, S., Rüegger, D., Kowatsch, T., Roberts, B. W., & Allemand, M. (2020). Becoming More Conscientious or More Open to Experience? Effects of a Two‐Week Smartphone‐Based Intervention for Personality Change. European Journal of Personality.

Wilmot, M. P., Haslam, N., Tian, J., & Ones, D. S. (2019). Direct and conceptual replications of the taxometric analysis of type a behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 116(3), e12.